I can do that: Women and computer science



This past weekend, I caught part of the documentary “CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap”, being aired on CBC. CODE explores the female minority in software engineering, and computer programming. The documentary features women employed at some of the top tech companies, including Pinterest, Twitter, Apple, Facebook, Reddit etc. The documentary puts a harsh light on the blatant discrimination that goes on in the industry, and the internalized idea that women don’t do science. Evidently, by interviewing women in top positions in the field, they show that this isn’t true. That women are just as good at programming and engineering.

They also discuss how in the history of programming and software engineering, women held key roles in its advancement. For instance Grace Hopper was a computer scientist and admiral in the US Navy. She not only worked as a programmer on the Harvard Mark I (an early “proto computer” designed and built by IBM in 1944), she was the only female. She’s credited as having invented the first compiler for a computer programming language. Even the US Navy named this ship the USS Hopper after her.

Clearly an impressive woman!

CODE made me think about my own experience with programming, and engineering. My dad is an electrical engineer, and works at a company that builds solar chips and panels. My mom is the head of a computer support unit. As a kid, they enrolled me in Virtual Ventures, a summer camp run by Carleton University that taught me how to use basic html coding to build colourful websites. In high school, they signed me up for a year long set of courses that encouraged me to create photo essays using Microsoft PowerPoint, and use html coding in place of traditional essays.

Looking at my history, I can see there is a strong backing for me to do something computer related. But (and this is not a criticism of my parents in any way), I never rely felt that a career in computing was an option. The sign never went on in my head that told me “I can do this.”

Now, maybe this is because I was just “average” when it came to computing. Maybe if I had excelled, I would have been encouraged. Or, maybe it’s because I didn’t really like the camp, or the course (I can’t really remember anymore.) But, even if I was just average or un-interested, I don’t remember anyone else ever coming into my classes, or pulling me aside to talk about careers in programming.

If I start to think of this as connected to gender, I see some patterns. First, there’s the running joke in my family that my dad always wanted an engineer, and that my two male cousins (both of whom did engineering at Queen’s) fulfilled this desire. Knowing my family, I suspect that if one of my female cousins had become an engineer, he’d still be making the joke, considering I have an uncle who complains that I never became a basketball player, despite having 2 nephews and a niece who play competitively (one of whom is “6’7”.)

But in light of CODE, I feel a bit more suspicious about this. If I had been a boy, would I have been pushed more?

A clearer example of this gender bias comes again from my family. Even though my mom has more computer knowledge then my dad, both her family and his family always turn to him for computing advice…in which (after hanging up the phone), he always asks her. They never call and ask for her when there is an issue. This makes her pretty crazy.

All of this is to say that I think there is a lot of truth to what CODE has to say. We (and I’m including myself in this one) have internalized this notion that only men do science. Which is pretty ludicrous, considering there are a ton of women in my life who are interested (and good at) programming and engineering.

And I should include myself in that category! I am by no means an expert, but I shouldn’t downplay what I can do. I do all the tech support at the company I work for. While this most revolves around email and account setup, I can still do it. I still have some of the skills I picked up from my high school course including html coding. And in my Digital History class alone I’ve learned so many great tools that I can use going forward. It’s been difficult, but eventually I got there. And I’m pretty certain that this won’t stop when the class ends.

Anyways, all in all, CODE is well worth the watch!

And I think I’m going to suggest a screening at Carleton. Maybe it’s worth seeing if some of the other women in my class might be interested in holding a working group once a month where we try out different tutorials/programs…

Learn more about CODE here.


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